Two years ago, Sheila Russell decided to move back to her family farm in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, which her forebear Danial Russell had settled in 1796, the year of George Washington’s retirement. A seventh-generation Russell, Sheila had gone away to pursue a career in graphic design and for a time had managed creative services at a large catalog company in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but the memory of her home kept her awake. After a stint as a community coordinator at an organic farm in northern Colorado, she, a 47-year-old woman with long curly red hair and blue eyes, decided it was time to leave for good the corporate world for the crops on her own family farm, where her father, Rexford Russell, still lived and worked.
In 2010, “Russell Sprouts Farm” began to take root.
So far, it has been a breathtaking success. For many decades the family owned a maple forest and a maple syrup business, “Endless Mountains Cabin Maple Syrup,” but she also managed to expand the operation into organic farming. Beets, cabbage, lettuce, onions, radishes, corn, spinach, beans, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, garlic: on several acres of land Sheila Russell is growing the world.
“Five rows of green beans sprouted today! I did a happy dance in the garden when I saw them,” reads one of the messages Sheila posted on the farm’s Facebook page, which she updates almost weekly with the delight of a child, news and photos of her produce splashed everywhere. In 2012, Sheila started a community-sponsored agriculture program, in which members of the local community are invited to make small investments in the farm in return for fresh organic vegetables each week of the growing season.
Even in the offseason, Sheila’s farm remains community-friendly. On the side of the driveway, where her little maple syrup shop is located, there is no cashier – only rows upon rows of maple leaf-shaped bottles of golden brown syrup next to a little table on which there is a basket and a sign: “Please, put your money in the basket. Your honesty is greatly appreciated. Thank you. The Russells.”
But just as Sheila Russell moved back on her family farm, a dark shadow was already creeping across the landscape. “Back on the farm in PA to grow organic veggies next year,” she wrote in a Twitter message, soon after she arrived. “Gas drilling everywhere – putting a kink in my plans – a cramp in my style. #@!”
As it happened, Sheila’s farm was sitting right on top of the Marcellus Shale, an ancient seabed running under large swaths of northern and western Pennsylvania, and rich in shale gas. Since 2007, the region has become the center of a real fossil-fuel rush, with hundreds of companies from all around the world descending onto the countryside.
About 9,000 wells have been drilled thus far, with tens of thousands more planned. Unlike conventional natural gas, however, which collects in large underground reservoirs, the commercial extraction of shale gas requires a highly invasive industrial process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and a very large number of wells. A special mixture of up to seven million gallons of water, fine sand and chemicals, some toxic, is injected under high pressure underground in order to shatter the hard, impermeable shale rock and release any trapped gas inside.
The Russell farm was not spared the gas boom. For decades the family had been leasing out the mineral rights under their property, usually for a few dollars an acre, but it was just a standard practice that farmers in Bradford County were generally used to, nobody expecting actual developments to take place. Nothing happened until June 2010 when, a few months before the lease expired, Chesapeake Energy, the largest oil and gas company in the region, moved in to drill two shale gas wells on the Russells’ property, less than a thousand feet from their house.
The family was not too worried at first. After all, if those wells started producing, the Russells would end up receiving part of the royalties, which could then help them improve their farming operation. Sheila carried on with her plans, planting the new organic crop of vegetables, tapping the maples for sap, turning the dreams she had dreamed for so long into a reality.
What they didn’t know was that the cement casings of one of the gas wells on their property had failed almost immediately. As Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) noted in its violations report in March 2011, over six months after the leak had begun, the well had “significant bubbling in cellar/uncontrolled release of gas.”
Chesapeake attempted to fix the problem by pumping in more cement into the bore – a “squeeze job” in the parlance of the industry – but the efforts failed. After another DEP inspection in the summer of 2011, methane was still leaking from the well. And even though the issues were serious, the Russells, rightful owners of the property they had leased out, were not informed. It took nearly a year after the leaks had started before they found out the true extent of the situation.
The Russells were furious. Instead of helping out their business, the gas well was threatening to destroy their 216-year-old farm, as well as Sheila’s dreams of organic agriculture. The subsequent tests of her water revealed slight elevations in the levels of sodium and methane gas, though supposedly within the DEP’s safe norms. But with some of her neighbors already suffering health problems because of water contamination from drilling, Sheila refused to take a gamble and stopped watering the crops from her local well, switching instead to a spring-fed pond at the edge of her property. As a health precaution, she and her family also ceased drinking from the tap and started buying plastic jugs of water from the store.
“It’s a concern for me. It’s a concern for my customers,” she tells me. “This year I don’t have as many New Yorkers coming across the border to buy food from here. The reason is pretty obvious. I would be concerned if I were a customer.”
It is not just the one leaky well that is endangering the business of Bradford County farmers like Sheila Russell. The industry itself estimates that about six percent of all well casings fail right away, with that percentage climbing to as much as 50 percent within a 30-year span. The failure to fix faulty well casings, which allowed methane to seep into the ground and contaminate the water supplies of 16 Bradford County families, cost Chesapeake a fine of $900,000 last year, the biggest environmental fine in the history of Pennsylvania. Overall, 2,392 drilling-related violations, posing a threat to the environment and the safety of communities, have been reported in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2011.
“People were excited at the beginning,” Sheila says, “but now that has subsided and there is a silence on the subject. We all thought it was a lot of money coming and that it was safe. And it’s neither safe, nor a money-maker. Do I stay on this seven-generation farm and keep it going? I don’t know.”
Despite all the difficulties, Sheila keeps on going, preparing the ground for next year, fixing the farming equipment, getting the maples ready.
“Seed catalogs in the mailbox! No rest for the weary… time to start planning crops for next year,” she wrote on her farm’s Facebook wall in early December. “What type of veggies would you like your local farmer to grow? I’ll see what I can do about that.”
Editor's note: The story was corrected to reflect Rexford Russell's ownership of the family's maple syrup business.
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of Shalereporter.com